Why do we think The Cloud of Unknowing is for us?

I just finished reading Clifton Wolters’ 1961 translation of The Cloud of Unknowing for Penguin Classics. Since 1961, there has been a new Penguin translation by A. Spearing. I see on Amazon at least six other translations into modern English besides Evelyn Underhill’s popular edition. Reviews of this book are almost all pure adulation and recommendation. People love The Cloud of Unknowing.

Now, I am not anti-Cloud of Unknowing. But I do wonder how many of us are its target audience.

Although the book has some practical advice for contemplative prayer, it is also clear that the person who is urged to beat at the cloud of unknowing is seeking to enter into the higher of two levels of contemplative life, to which few ever ascend. It is also clear that most people live in the active life, and that entering this higher level of the contemplative life is a gift of grace. Not everyone is called or suited, and you can meet God in other ways and be holy in the active life as well as in the lower level of the contemplative life.

Now, the author of The Cloud is right in saying that since this is the result of grace, not of our own doing, it may require only a moment of work. We may, the instant we begin, receive the grace in contemplation that so many of us seek. But the author also describes what sounds like a more common journey — from a life of discipline and charitable works up to the lower level of contemplation — which is also the higher level of the active life — before ascending to this highest level of the ascetic-contemplative life.

I suppose I fear that many of us, many of the writers of glowing reviews, set aside some time for what we call “contemplative prayer” and follow some of the advice given in The Cloud without pursuing fasting, long periods of meditation on Scripture, giving away excess personal goods, wearing a simple wardrobe, eating plain food, following the advice of a spiritual director/father, engaging in acts of mercy and charity, et cetera.

If we are not pursuing the active life, are we ready to try the contemplative life?

Now, maybe more people are doing these things than I suspect. If so, this is great. And maybe more people receive the grace of contemplation without effort than I imagine. If so, this is great. However, if I am right, I hope that we will all start taking seriously the disciplined life as much as the contemplative life. There are no short cuts to holiness most of the time. There’s no such thing as “40 days to mountain top experiences of God.” God lives with us in the valleys and he helps us climb those mountains.

Remember that a likely original audience for this work was a person considering becoming a Carthusian! The guys who take a vow of silence. Remember that most of the great mystical works of the Middle Ages were written by monks and hermits like St Bernard, St Bonaventure, Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle, and St Thomas of Kempen. Whatever flowering of mysticism they may have encountered, they also lived the disciplined life of asceticism.

So, although there is profit in The Cloud of Unknowing, and I would recommend it to people interested in the western mystical tradition, I think most of us need to read some more ascetic books because, as easy as this one feels sometimes, I think it is beyond us.

Benedict and the Desert Tradition of the Middle Ages

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

I am in the middle of writing about the Rule of St Benedict, and yesterday I began writing about his twelve steps to humility. Immediately, what came to my mind as a helpful addition to St Benedict was the distinction between perfect and imperfect humility in the anonymous, 14th-century Cloud of Unknowing. The Cloud makes an interesting distinction between the two. Imperfect humility arises when we look at ourselves, our sins, our frailties, our weaknesses. Perfect humility, on the other hand, is the result of looking at God and being overcome by his greatness, glory, and goodness.

Throughout my current work on Benedict’s Rule, I am trying to focus my attention on the Rule itself, the tradition that birthed it, or the tradition that grew out of it. This is an ample field from which to reap — not only John Cassian and the Rule of the Master, but the Desert tradition leading to Cassian (including Evagrius), and Benedict’s other “holy catholic Fathers” such as Pachomius, Basil, Augustine; not only pre-Benedictine monasticism but the sons and daughters of Benedict as well, such as Bede, Boniface, Anselm, Hildegard, Bernard, Aelred, the rest of the Cistercians, and even Thomas Merton.

But what about texts such as the Cloud of Unknowing? When I write about Lectio Divina, can I safely use Guigo II, a Carthusian? Or the Victorines if I feel the need? Obviously, any wisdom from any source should be welcome. But if I’m writing about the Rule of St Benedict, part of me wants to consider the influence that Benedictine life and spirituality has had. Can Carthusian sources be welcomed, then?

I am, in fact, leaning towards yes. The reasoning is not simply, “Wisdom is wisdom. Let us attend.” It also has to do with the nature of the Middle Ages. The Rule of St Benedict is the most popular monastic rule from before 800 to after 1200 when the friars start appearing. Besides being used by multiple orders, the members of non-Benedictine orders had contact with the Rule, its sources, and their brothers following the path of Benedict.

For example, St Bernard was a regular visitor to the Abbey of St Victor, and I have an unconfirmed suspicion that there are links between some Victorine and Cistercian manuscripts. William of St-Thierry wrote works for Carthusians. Ivo of Chartres, not a Benedictine, studied at the monastic school of the Benedictine monastery at Bec alongside St Anselm under Lanfranc. Sons and daughters of Benedict rub shoulders with those in non-Benedictine orders.

Furthermore, the Desert tradition that nourished the Rule of St Benedict in many ways continues to be copied, read, and meditated upon — and sometimes lived — by those outside the Benedictine tradition.

Therefore, it seems methodologically sound to include sources from outside the Benedictine tradition when they represent the wider tradition of the Desert as it swept through western Europe in the Middle Ages. Medieval Christianity is a thousand-year meditation and recasting of Late Antiquity in different ways. Its interconnectedness should, therefore, inform our meditations upon it.

Into Great Silence

I recently re-watched Philip Gröning’s film Die Grosse Stille, or in English Into Great Silence. This film is an immersive experience and possibly one of the better ways to bring people into the world of Christian monasticism and the contemplative tradition.

When I first watched it, I watched it over more than one sitting. Although this film is a bit long — 2 h 42 min — it is, I think, important to watch an immersive film such as this in a single sitting. Into Great Silence is about the monks of La Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps. This is the mother house of the Carthusian order. Carthusians do not talk to each other. They sing the office and chant the readings. The few times they eat together in refectory, a brother reads to them, and they keep silent as they eat.

The first non-singing human voice in the film is the monk who takes care of the cats, about 20 min in.

The sounds you hear in the great silence are footsteps in the cloisters. Feet treading up stairs. The sound of a kneeler creaking beneath monastic weight. The rustle of white robes. Birdsong. Spoons in bowls of soup. Rain. The river. Scissors cutting fabric. The rasor shaving their heads. The food trolley rolling down the corridor. A shovel in the snow. You hear the bell ring and watch the monks kneel to pray wherever they are. You hear them shuffle in, taking turns at the chapel bell and arranging themselves in the choir. You hear them sing the night office in Latin.

There is no voice over. Just the great silence of the Carthusian life.

La Grande Chartreuse

The film covers about one year of life at La Grande Chartreuse. It begins and ends in winter, with shots of blizzards in the Alps. You see La Grande Chartreuse covered in snow. You see the majestic backdrop of the Alps surrounding it. You watch the spring melt-off. You see the rivers and streams swell. You see two young men make profession as novices. I found it interesting that the prior seemed to roll his R’s in French like an Italian (maybe he’s Italian). You see a monk sitting at his table in his hermitage reading. You see a monk preparing  celery. You watch the monks get their heads shaved.

It is a very simple life. They seek to live that monastic ideal ora et labora. They cut their own wood for their fireplaces; Carthusians live in little houses, each with its own garden. There are also larger, communal gardens. These all grow vegetables. They pray, they read, they prepare food, they take care of the cats, they take care of the cattle, they clean the monastery, they keep the spring water flowing to the charterhouse. They work. They pray. They sleep. They pray. They sleep. They pray. They work. Repeat.

There is a bit of modern plumbing, a few electric lights, electric rasors, and an IBM Thinkpad. But most of what they use looks mediaeval. You see a monk washing his dishes in his room with a jug and a bucket, and the water flows out a hole to the outdoors.

They do talk, though. Gröning edited the material very well — at the one communal meal in the film, the reading is from the constitutions of the Carthusians, talking about how they eat supper together on Sundays and solemn feasts, and that after the meal they have the chance for conversation, so that they can experience some of the joy of family life. They also get to go for a walk once a week because of how refreshing a walk in the forest is for frail humans after all the strictness of the Carthusian way of life.

What do they talk about? Whether they should maintain the tradition of handwashing, and if getting rid of the handwashing would be the start of a slippery slope into indiscipline.

They also go sliding in the winter. Their laughs are very highpitched.

In the end, this is a beautiful film of extraordinary power. I recommend it highly, whether you are into monks or not. For me, I really felt like this was a taste of the kind of spiritual tradition and spirituality that I could get into. Maybe never actually as a Carthusian, but this world of silence, calm, prayer, service, is enchanting.

Finally, if you get the collector’s edition, it has a second disc full of interesting information and slideshows about the making of the film and the history and spirituality of Carthusians.

Guigo II: Lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio

La Grande Chartreuse: Home to Lectio Divina

I am not the greatest practicioner of the medieval discipline of Lectio divina; I really only started a few weeks, and only sporadically. To get myself into the discipline, I’m reading Guigo II, Prior of La Grande Chartreuse, the motherhouse of the Carthusians in the late 1100s, Scala Claustralium — The Ladder of Monks. My Internet research says that he’s the first to clearly articulate the now-standard quartet of lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio.

He writes, at the end of chapter 2:

Lectio is the careful investigation of the Scriptures with the attention of the soul (animus). Meditatio is the zealous activity of the mind (mens), seeking out the knowledge of hidden truth by the leading of its own reason. Oratio is the devoted attention of the heart to God for the removal of evil or the acquisition of good things. Contemplatio is a certain elevation above itself of the mind suspended in God , tasting of the joys of eternal sweetness.

Lent starts tomorrow — rethink discipline

A Flemish Gothic altarpiece (Musée nationale du Moyen-Age, Paris)
A Flemish Gothic altarpiece (Musée nationale du Moyen-Age, Paris)

I’ve noticed a few people recently expressing their concern about the usefulness of Lenten disciplines. For some, rather than turning their hearts towards Easter, their Lenten discipline just makes them grumpy, and then Easter becomes a gluttonous, fleshly indulgence in whatever it was they had given up. Or they notice no perceptible increase in virtue (although, perhaps, moodiness).

So, really, what’s the point? Why engage in a Lenten discipline?

In the film Into Great Silence (La Grande Silence) the monks talk only once. The film is about the Carthusians of La Grande Chartreuse, monks (technically hermits in community; what Byzantines would call a lavra) living in perpetual silence. Except once a year. Then they get to talk. All I remember is that there was some conversation about hand-washing, and one of the monks says,

‘Perhaps the problem is not with the tradition but with ourselves.’

This is a very humble approach to spiritual inheritance — what one would expect from Carthusians.

Perhaps the problem isn’t with Lenten disciplines but with how we engage in them.

To take the example of coffee. People give up coffee for Lent quite frequently. They crave it and find it annoying and go through all the symptoms of chemical withdrawal. By Easter, however, they should be free of the habit. But many people brew their first cup of coffee that Easter morning and start the cycle all over again. What, they feel, was the point of Lent?

I have two thoughts concerning this. First: Whenever you crave that coffee, think on Jesus. If you get a headache because of withdrawal, consider that Jesus got a headache because of a crown of thorns. You are suffering a voluntary abandonment of an unnecessary pleasure you engage in voluntarily. Christ, although voluntarily saving us, died. Your tiny, little suffering is a smidgeon of a taste of a teaspoon of the suffering of God the Son on the Cross.

Remember that fact all of Lent, regardless of discipline. Annoyed at the extra time taken up by reading the Archibshop’s Lent book? Craving some chocolate? Extra hungry during a Friday fast? Remember that Christ died for you. That you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Then thank Him for His sacrifice, Who died that you might live, Who trampled down death by death.

Second: Use Lent to be a kickstart to a more disciplined life, anyway. Monks don’t really need Lent — they already live in a more disciplined way than us. When Easter comes, they can, what, eat meat once a week again? If they even eat meat. On Easter morning, don’t make that brew. Maybe, if you enjoy the ritual of coffee that much, start drinking de-caf. Think on it.

This leads me to my final thought, which is rethink what sort of discipline you do this year. I’m not giving up anything. Instead, I’m going to use this focussed, forty-day period in which so many of us do more than usual to do as much as I wish I did usually — a weekly fast and daily morning prayer. And hopefully I’ll continue for years beyond Sunday, April 4, 2015.

What disciplines might you kickstart this Lent?

Flirting with Monasticism

Every once in a while, Wycliffe College has a bunch of discount books for sale on some tables outside their bookstore.  On Thursday nights, I walk past these tables since they’re right outside the room where Graduate Christian Fellowship meets.  This past Thursday (March 26), I noticed Flirting With Monasticism: Finding God On Ancient Paths for sale there.  Since the U of T library system didn’t have it, I bought it on Friday.  And I read it on Friday, with the exception of the appendices which I read on Saturday.

Flirting with Monasticism is Karen E Sloan’s journey with Dominican friars through a year of novitiate.  The Dominican part of her pilgrimage began when she found she had a crush on a young man who was entering the novitiate.  Thus began a year of questions and searching for her as well as worshipping with a different group of Dominicans in the priory in her neighbourhood.  Over the year, Sloan journeyed into the monastic world as far as a Protestant woman really can, learning much about the Dominicans and Dominic, praying the Liturgy of the Hours and encountering God in rich, deep, powerful ways.

Christianity is about a life with God, about relationship, and the monks know it.

As a taste of what you find within, here are the chapter titles: “Finding God on Ancient and Not-So-Ancient Paths”, “Vestition: Receiving the Habit,” “The Liturgy of the Hours: Praying the Divine Office,” “In the Presence of Christ: Participating in Adoration & the Eucharist,” “Encountering Mary: Saying the Rosary,” “Community: Living Together Constantly,” “The Communion of Saints: Living in a Visual History,” “First Profession of Vows: Making Commitments,” “Epilogue: It’s Not a Program.”

Those chapter titles, now that I look at them, sound very Catholic.  However, Sloan is very up-front about her evangelical character as a Presbyterian pastor.  Thus, for those of us not in agreement with Rome’s doctrines about Eucharist, Mary, and the Saints, and for those of us not comfortable joining in on practices such as Eucharistic Adoration or the Rosary, don’t worry!  She finds lessons from these aspects of Catholic spirituality for the evangelical Protestant, many of them found in the meaning behind these actions and the contemplative nature of monastic life.

The biggest thing that runs through this book is the Liturgy of the Hours, which she prayed with the monks at the local priory twice a day for Morning and Evening Prayer.  Regular prayer has potency and the cycle of scriptures and Psalms is good for our souls.  We are bound together as we worship the one, holy Triune God.

So What?

So, I’ve been flirting with monasticism for a while.  You may recall posts on my old blog at St. Francis of Assisi.  My fondness for Francis led me to consider becoming an associate of The Society of Saint Francis (SSF) or to join the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, John Michael Talbot’s group, inspired by Talbot himself — including his book Lessons From Saint Francis, as well as Rich Mullins, GK Chesterton’s St. Francis of Assisi, and The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi. I also own Celebrating Common Prayer, a version of the Daily Office of the SSF.  And I’ve seen Brother Sun, Sister Moon. St. Francis is always an inspiration to me, and a painting of him sits on the shelves on my desk as I do my work.

My monastic flirtation goes beyond St. Francis, but is mostly bookish, cerebral, intellectual.  Not as spiritual as I’d like.  My current research is into the fifth-century monastic writer John Cassian.  I wrote a paper on the Desert Fathers for a course in my undergrad (the inspiration for my current work) — I have read many of their sayings as well as the Life of St. Antony.  I’ve also read selections from the Rule of St. Benedict and Gregory’s Life of Benedict.  I love the film Into Great Silence which led me to read a book (lent by my uncle) entitled Carthusians.  Add to all these Lady Julian of Norwich’s Revelations Of Divine Love, St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, selections from the Philokalia, most of St. Theresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, Thomas Merton’s The Inner Experience, and selections from other monks/nuns/anchorites, and you could say that I’ve encountered a lot more monastic reading than the average person who thinks himself “evangelical.”

Flirting With Monasticism has challenged me to do more than just read about monks.  I should be seeking ways that monastic wisdom can be incorporated into my life as a married layperson.  And so I’m going to do just that.  I’ll keep you posted.